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This article was prepared in consultation with Gaye Dixon, a practising registered osteopath. She holds a Diploma in Osteopathy and is an MRO, Osteo.

What's the origin of osteopathy?

The word itself comes from the Greek – osteo: bone, pathos: disease. The practice began in America in the 19th century when army doctor Andrew Taylor Still began looking at the power of the body to heal itself.

Still was disillusioned with the medicine of his day, having watched helplessly as three of his children died of meningitis. He wanted to discover the cause of disease rather than just treating symptoms, and stumbled on the idea that ‘bones out of place’ could damage the blood and nerve supply, causing illness. He began to study anatomy and the mechanics of the musculo-skeletal system, and harnessed the concept of drugless medicine – so osteopathy was born.

How does osteopathy work?

Osteopaths look at the body as a whole when they treat you, and try to find out where there are problems in your muscles, joints and skeleton. For example, an imbalance in the pelvis following a fall might cause lower back pain, while stiffness in the shoulders and ribs from poor posture or injury could make breathing even more difficult for someone with asthma.
Tension and inflammation in the spine can affect the whole nervous system. Osteopaths will often focus on posture and the flexibility of the spine to overcome such problems. If the whole body framework of muscles, joints and bones is aligned and in full working order then other parts of the body, like the nerves and brain, will not be under undue pressure. The digestive, circulation, lymph and other systems will benefit too.

What happens during a treatment?

At your first session, the osteopath will take a detailed case history of your symptoms, your medical history, and even lifestyle. Only then will they begin to look at your posture, and the mobility of your joints. You might also have your blood pressure taken and reflexes tested depending on your symptoms.

Once the osteopath has begun to build up an overall picture, they will then begin to look at specific areas of the spine and neck and other joints for specific problems. In particular an osteopath will seek out 'misaligned' joints, points of inflammation that may be causing painful pressure on nerves, and general stiffness and immobility.

An osteopath may use massage, muscle stretching and articulation of joints to relax and loosen muscles and free up stiff joints. This includes the joints in the spine.

The more well-known 'thrust' mobilisation techniques, which involve applying a gentle force to a particular joint to 'realign' it, are reserved for specific problems. The thrust techniques often cause joints to pop and click but there is usually very little pain. The action itself can be quite liberating as joints that have been seized up for long periods are once again free to move.

Usually several sessions are required to overcome a problem and, as with most forms of medicine, osteopathy helps to alleviate symptoms but is not necessarily a cure. However, an osteopath will show you how to achieve a better posture, change aspects of your lifestyle that may be making a problem worse, such as slouching at the computer or lifting heavy objects – including children – badly, and teach you various simple exercises that can be done at home or even at work to help the healing process. The overall aim is often to prevent the problem coming back.

What can osteopathy help?

Osteopathy can help patients old and young with many different problems including –

Asthma and breathing problems
Back and neck pain
Back pain in pregnancy
Digestive disorders
Foot, calf and knee pain
Frozen or stiff shoulders
Headache and migraine
Hip and thigh problems
Joint pain, like arthritis
Postural problems
Slipped discs
Sports injuries, like tennis elbow, and repetitive strain injuries
Trapped nerves
Whiplash injuries. 

Where's the evidence?

Osteopathy today is fully recognised as 'a discrete clinical discipline' running along side mainstream medicine.
Millions of pounds are spent each year on clinical trials into the effectiveness of different back pain treatments, one of which is osteopathy. Numerous trials have shown it works well in treating acute back pain and related problems.

What do doctors think about osteopathy?

Osteopathy is probably one of the best known manipulative therapies. The 1993 Osteopath’s Act provided practitioners with official recognition, and by May 2000 all osteopaths will have to be on the official register if they want to call themselves 'osteopath'. Although treatment on the NHS is limited at the moment, you are quite likely to be referred to an osteopath by your GP for private treatment. In fact, it is quite common to find osteopaths running clinics within community health centres alongside the usual GP services.

Osteopaths are now building trust with conventional medicine on the basis of the 1993 Act of Parliament and the establishment of the General Council of Osteopaths in 1996. The Council maintains high standards for its members and cooperates with the medical profession on research and practise. The Royal College of General Practitioners recommends that doctors consider osteopathy and chiropractic for back pain and other relevant problems. The introduction of statutory regulation has obviously given assurances to the medical profession that registered osteopaths are working to professional standards under a Code of Conduct.

What should I look for in a practitioner?

Your GP or the General Osteopathic Council should be able to advise you on finding a registered practitioner in your area. The Council can be reached on 0171 357 6655 or through its web site at You should always check that anyone you consult is fully qualified before making an appointment, and if for whatever reason you are not happy or comfortable with your practitioner after the initial session don't make another appointment.